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Status Report, Vol. 42, No. 9 | SPECIAL ISSUE: MOTORCYCLES | September 11, 2007 Subscribe

Novelty helmets prove flimsy in federal tests

Helmets are supposed to protect motorcyclists from head injury, but so-called novelty helmets that aren't certified under federal safety standards don't measure up. When the government put seven popular novelty helmets to the test against properly certified ones, the novelty helmets flunked. In fact, researchers concluded that in a crash with forces similar to those in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) lab test a motorcyclist wearing a novelty helmet would be likely to sustain a brain injury and/or a skull fracture.

Novelty helmets are pretty flimsy. They don't have very much, if any, energy-absorbing capability, and they don't adequately cover the head. Another problem cited in the NHTSA study is that many of these helmets have poor strap retention systems that can't withstand typical crash forces. A helmet is useless if it comes off during a crash.

A 2006 observational survey of motorcycle helmet use in the United States found that 14 percent of riders use helmets that don't comply with federal safety standards, and an additional 35 percent don't wear helmets at all, according to NHTSA.

Novelty helmets are sometimes called "skullcaps," "beanies," or "German army style." Helmets certified by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) have a label affixed to the back, but some retailers may provide buyers with counterfeit DOT stickers to try to pass off the helmet as compliant. Buyers need to pay careful attention to a helmet's weight, liner thickness, and chin strap. Compliant helmets have about one inch of polystyrene foam, compared with no padding or just a thin layer of soft foam on uncertified helmets, NHTSA says. Certified helmets weigh about three pounds, but novelty helmets typically weigh only about a pound or less.

Novelty helmets put riders at higher risk of skull fracture and brain injury than certified helmets and are likely to come off during a crash.

"A motorcycle rider who wears a novelty helmet during a motorcycle crash in which the rider falls to the ground and the rider's head contacts a rigid body such as a paved road will likely sustain fatal head injuries. Motorcycle riders who wear novelty helmets and believe that 'something is better than nothing' have a false sense of security regarding the protection afforded them by helmets not designed or manufactured to comply with FMVSS No. 218," NHTSA states in the April study.

Helmets could prevent many deaths

As motorcyclist ridership increases, helmet use is on the decline, leading to more deaths.

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